Kicking the Trump Habit

Can You Beat the Devil?
Thoughts on Trump's America

Long before January 1 rolled around I resolved to stop obsessing about Donald Trump. I too am appalled and frightened, but I can't waste my life being frustrated and angry all the time. A Facebook friend warned me last summer that Trump was Satan, and he wasn't being metaphorical. I still think the clownish monster Mussolini a closer match, but I understand how some might see Trump as the Devil himself.

My own thought processes seem to make metaphorical thinking the default setting. Maybe that's why I find myself foraging amidst folkloric and religious metaphors. Does it matter if Trump is a literal demon, or just an unspeakably awful human being? It all boils down to the same question: How do you beat the Devil?

The are legions of folktales about making deals with the Devil, the usual being a bargain struck for immediate gain in exchange for one's soul at a later date. An oft-told one tells of how Robert Johnson met the Devil at the crossroads and pledged his soul for the talent to be a great bluesman. The tale's roots are ancient and its variants many. The crunch comes when payment time rolls around and one must "give the devil his due." We have expressions such as "beat the Devil at his game," "trick the Devil," and "lucky devil." We admire "daredevils." There are even handfuls of tales in which someone manages to outsmart, cheat, or overpower the Devil. Key word: "handfuls." As an old idiom puts it, "He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon." Most of the time the Devil cleans the plate.   

The moral from folklore is simple: don't make pacts with the Devil. That's how I feel about supporting anything Trump advocates and it's the advice I implore my representatives to follow. Some Democrats think they can be like Robert Johnson and gain pieces of something they want: a compromise on DACA, a salvaged piece of the Affordable Care Act, a tweak on tax reform, a stopgap spending bill…. Don't do it. The Devil lies and cheats and he will claim your soul. My liberal friends won't like this, but this is not a "lesser of two evils" scenario; the choice is Hobson's. We might have to tolerate suffering now in order for a better world to emerge later. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, "the arc of the moral universe is long." He didn't coin that phrase; he borrowed it from 19th century abolitionist, the Rev. Theodore Parker—to whom I'll return. 

Maybe we can learn some political lessons from religious traditions. I can hear some sneer across the screen. I'd be the last to deny the great evils done by hucksters, charlatans, zealots, Pharisees, and hypocrites. I am certainly not advocating that we pray for Trump to go away (though I'd not discourage it). But most religions and humanitarian philosophies began life as ethical systems centered on the greatest of all questions: How shall we then live?

Such a weighty question requires, first and foremost, focus upon things noble and worthy. One of the greatest sorrows of our time is that so many good people spend their waking moments obsessed by Donald Trump, which makes him the center of all things—exactly as he would have it. There is little point to railing against the Devil. It's not like we can will good from evil. Mostly, obsession is the gateway to possession. Many religious texts tell of how a good person—among them Job, Elijah, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, Zoroaster, and most bodhisattvas—are deluged with temptations and distractions. Those who do not fall by the wayside keep their eyes on the prize, not glitter or woes. It's not easy to do, and yours truly too often gets lured into the traps.  

Ultimately, though, we ask ourselves stinging questions. What kind of America do we want? How much time do we invest in bringing that about versus the amount of time we spend obsessing about Trump? Let's return to the question of what Trump wants. Wealth? He has that. What would wound him most to lose? Probably glorification; attention is his oxygen. In the 1960s activists dared ask, "What if they had a war and nobody came?" Today's parallel is, "What if Trump spoke and nobody listened?"

Perhaps that sounds naïve. Okay, I'm being metaphorical again, but not entirely. The ultimate naïveté is the belief that government changes society. It doesn't; government institutionalizes changes that percolate up from the bottom. Government, with rare exceptions, is reactive, not proactive. Consider the aforementioned Theodore Parker (1810-60), a white prosperous farmer's son who went to Harvard Divinity School. How did he become an abolitionist? In the decades before the Civil War, legions of Northern evangelicals concluded that the federal government would not repair the nation's wrongs. Great grassroots campaigns—moral reforms, temperance, and abolitionism among them—took in hand tasks government would not.

It's an old story. Not to trash political icons such as Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Wilson, or LBJ that signed into law landmark reforms, but each acted in response to the grassroots, not vice versa. Politicians can be persuaded to march for justice, but they seldom organize the parades. Think of the great crusades: anti-slavery, women's suffrage, labor unions, old-age pensions, consumer safety, settlement houses, benefits for the poor, civil rights, Social Security, the peace movement…. In each case, the politician's role was ex post facto. You don't even have to open a history book to see that. How did gay marriage happen? Reproductive rights? Awareness of sexual harassment? The Sanctuary movement? When it comes to social justice, the train is pushed, not pulled.

Would grassroots democracy thrive if Trump were cast out like a demon? Probably not right away. The moral arc isn't impossible to climb, but it is long. All the more reason, though, for a collective exorcism. We must stop nursing demons through our attention. We must move forward, not wallow in self-pity. How shall we then live? With hope, not despair.


Really Bad Ideas: February 2-18 Edition


I could probably write a daily column about the bad ideas that follow humankind like a bloodhound chasing the scent of a discarded steak, but winter always seems to focus my attention on negatives. Here’s your February edition.

1. Trump calls non-applauding lawmakers ‘treasonous.’

I won’t even get into issues such as the monumental insecurity, egoism, and childishness involved in fretting over bruised feelings. Let’s cut straight to the grammatical issues. First, the POTUS is apparently unaware that “legislator” is not a synonym for “sycophant.” Second, he’s equally oblivious of the word “opposition.” But these pale compared to his basic ignorance of the very definition of treason. Someone should give the Old Snollygoster a dictionary. I should think conspiring with a foreign power to influence a presidential election fits the definition of treason much better, yes?

2. Elon Musk sends a Tesla to orbit Mars.

It will orbit the Red Planet for about a billion years. Ummm… why? If, as stated, the objective is to test the payload capacity of the new Falcon 9 heavy rocket, launch several tons of biodegradable material and aim it at the sun. This stunt isn’t even a hipster’s because-it’s-cool-and-I-can moment; it’s an act of eternal intragalactic littering. Musk has done some wonderful things in the past, but let’s call this what it is: one big, expensive advertisement for a company in which Musk is heavily invested. The Tesla is a great car, but do we have to junk up space to make that point?

3.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ war on marijuana.

I am not a user. Now that’s out of the way, I observe that nine states plus the District of Columbia have legalized pot. That upsets our Attorney General, who is considering using federal power and the FDA to overturn state efforts and assure that marijuana remains a Schedule I dangerous drug. Science, of course, does not support such a ridiculous classification, but there’s a bigger jay to burn here. I thought Republicans were the states’ rights guys. Or does this only apply to social justice standards? It shouldn’t matter what I or Jeff Sessions thinks about marijuana—states have passed their own laws. This is rank hypocrisy on the part of the GOP. You know—the group that says Democrats want a “Nanny State.”

4. Consumers panic over quality of Girl Scout cookies.

For many years all GS cookies were baked in Massachusetts. Now some are also baked in New Hampshire and diehard consumers worry that the Granite State comestibles may not measure up. Some have even demanded labels so they can determine ovens of origin. Oh for heaven’s sake! Does anyone buy Girl Scout cookies under the illusion that they are health food? Or that they are the best cookies one could purchase? Get a life!

5. Stan Rosenberg is still in the Massachusetts Senate.

I like Stan Rosenbeg. He’s a true liberal and he has done well for his Western Massachusetts constituents. He raised eyebrows when he, a gay man, announced that his 68-year-old self intended to marry Byron Hefner, who is just 30. So what? Relationships need make sense only to those involved in them and the rest is nobody’s damn business. Except when those relationships spill into politics. It looks increasingly likely that Hefner is a solipsistic con artist. That’s sad, and he and Rosenberg have separated. Worse, Hefner used his connections and Rosenberg’s accounts to engage in lobbying and political muscle flexing. For this, Rosenberg must be held accountable as only he could give Hefner access. Both Yvonne Abraham and Adrian Walker of the Boston Globe have called for him to step down and Rosenberg is subject to a State Ethics Commission probe. Liberals must face the fact that one of their own has committed errors of judgment they would not countenance from a conservative. Rosenberg’s political career lies in tear-stained shards and he can no longer be an effective advocate for constituents. Call it a tragic end to a hitherto good man, but Rosenberg needs to resign, reassess, and heal.

6. Donald Trump wants a parade to celebrate military might.

Fine. Let’s do it. As long as our self-styled Premier grows a push-broom mustache, dons a military tunic, and sends all future White House press releases to Pravda. What fun it will be to have Trump tweet about the size of his schlong vis-à-vis a cavalcade of nuclear-tipped ICBMs. Sarah Huckabee Sanders can stand admiringly by his side. Eyes front, Sarah!    

7. The Westminster Dog Show

I roared at Best in Show, the 2000 movie parody of this event, but that’s the only thing I find amusing about the Westminster Dog Show. I felt really sad when I saw pictures of the primped and trimmed, floofed and poofed pooches for this year’s competition. I wanted to lead a breakout and direct these trussed up tail-waggers to a dumpster dive. Let dogs be dogs!


The Post Reminds Us of Why Professional Journalism Matters


THE POST (2017)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Fox Searchlight, 116 minutes, PG-13 (language, war scenes)

Once upon a time people who served the public felt a sense of civic responsibility. The Post tells a true story—the 1971 decision of The Washington Post to publish parts of The Pentagon Papers, even though the rival New York Times was under a legal desist order. Director Steven Spielberg spins the tale with enough dramatic tension and panache that his film compares favorably with All the President’s Men (1976) and Spotlight (2015).

We now live at a time in which "truth" is a moving target and many think that print journalism is archaic. The American press was not born in full disclosure mode and its devotion to public service has waxed and waned, but one hopes we've reached the nadir. The Post reminds us of how shifts for the better occur. Prior to the social upheaval of the Sixties, the post-World War II press was more constrained by social conventions that folded into an old-boys’ network that valued chumminess, full access, and gentlemen’s agreements. Edward R. Murrow was an outlier in his devotion to investigative reporting and exposing lies for public scrutiny. Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) ran a genteel paper when she assumed control of the Washington Post after her husband Phil—a philandering and moody alcoholic—committed suicide in 1963.

Katherine Meyer Graham had no qualifications to head a paper beyond her marriage license and wouldn’t have had even that if her husband lived long enough to leave her, as he planned. She was born into a wealthy family and we meet her in the role she knew best: as a socialite presiding over parties for Georgetown elites. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) was an old family friend. Similarly, her editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hawks), considered the Kennedys as close friends. The war raged in faraway Vietnam, but as late as early June 1971, the Post was fixated on a spat with the Nixon White House that threatened Meg Greenfield’s (Carrie Coon) coverage of Trisha Nixon’s wedding. Then, the shit the fan and The Post recovered its soul.

Staggered by a McNamara press conference on Vietnam he knew to be a tissue of lies, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a Rand Corporation analyst, photocopied reams of classified government documents that showed that presidents from Harry Truman through Lyndon Johnson deliberately misled the American public on all aspects about the Vietnam War—from why we went into battle to why we stayed, even though few policymakers thought we could win. Ellsberg leaked the papers to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan and Richard Nixon, busy constructing falsehoods of his own, took steps to quash further release of the documents as soon as Sheehan’s first story hit the Times’ front page.

The Post plays like a cloak-and-dagger film. Post reporter Ben Badikian (Bob Odenkirk) also knew Ellsberg, so what if he could get his hands on the documents while the Times was under injunction? Since most folks know the historical outcome, Spielberg wisely develops drama by dwelling on the decision-making process. Would you publish if you were Katharine Graham and your lawyers advised you not to, your board warned the paper might go under, and you stood to lose both family fortune and friends? Would you push for publishing were you Ben Bradlee and members of your staff could go to jail? If you were part of that staff, would you write those stories? For that matter, would you leak the papers if you were Ellsberg and potentially faced a capital treason trial? How many lies would it take to spur you to action?

Spielberg’s makes us fear potential losses that we intellectually know did not, in the end, occur. He is aided by fine ensemble acting. Streep has been nominated as Best Actress for her role as Graham. She’s very good, though objectively it’s not an Oscar-worthy performance. Hanks is the one who should have been nominated; he is superb as a man coming to grips with betrayal, star-struck naïveté, and his moral conscience. Rare for a Hollywood film, those in lesser roles are more than window dressings. In addition to those already mentioned, there are small but chewy parts for Michael Stuhlbarg, Sarah Paulson, and Alison Brie. And let’s also acknowledge that Streep centers the film, which is as it should be for a movie whose major subtheme centers on women slowly realizing the need to question the white-shirted old boys’ world of power and presumption. (Graham was the first female publisher and the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 business.)

As for negatives, the John Williams soundtrack is overbearing on occasion. There is also some now obligatory creation of characters for the sole purpose of checking PC boxes. The biggest rap has come from the New York Times, which complains that the film exaggerates the importance of the Washington Post. That’s both true and petty. The Times has been too protective of its turf to appreciate audience reactions. There was cheering in the theater during the reading of a Supreme Court decision that declared that journalists “serve the governed, not the government.” There was also applause in parts in which admonitions against tyranny were thinly veiled Nixon-as-Trump allusions.

If you’re one of those people who thinks newspapers are dinosaurs and that social media and independent “citizen journalists” can do what a team of trained news reporters can do, watch this film and think again. Pay close attention to the film’s coda. Muse some more over the delicious irony of a Fox franchise reminding us of the importance of a free press that’s more than a podium for bombastic ranters.

Rob Weir


I, Tonya is Dreck on Ice


I, TONYA (2017)
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Neon Films, 119 Minutes, R (brief nudity, violence, language, smoking)

I have talked to people who refuse to go see I, Tonya because they think Tonya Harding is a disgusting human being. That’s natural enough, given that I live in Massachusetts, home of Nancy Kerrigan, and the victim of a brutal 1994 kneecapping that almost ended her skating career. To those who feel this way­, I can give you a better reason not to see the film: it’s awful.

First, let’s get some Bay State folklore out of the way. Nancy Kerrigan was not the princess she was made out to be after “The Incident,” as the attack on her is usually referenced. Like Harding, Kerrigan was also a blue-collar kid who was rough around the edges and partied hard—she simply “cleaned up” better because she was willing to play by rules laid down by the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA), whereas Harding called “Bullshit!” whenever she perceived it. There was no evidence that Ms. Harding ordered an attack on Kerrigan; the two were ice rivals, but had been friends prior to The Incident. The legal records indicate only that Harding was culpable in “hindering prosecution,” to which she pleaded guilty. In other words, she did not tell investigators that that she had learned that her ex-husband and trainer, Jeff Gillooly, and the man he hired as her bodyguard, loser lowlife Shawn Eckhardt, were responsible for hiring two inept thugs to rattle Kerrigan. Although almost no one now believes it, it’s possible that Harding was also a victim in the entire sordid mess.

What you should believe is that Tonya Harding—played by Margot Robbie—is an abuse victim. She was victimized by poverty, a broken home, and a driven lizard of a mother, LaVona Golden, who’d make Joan Crawford a candidate for Mother of the Year by comparison. Allison Janney plays Golden and she is, by miles, the best thing about the film. She is the creepiest “stage mother” we’ve seen in years, one who only opened her mouth to criticize and made her child daughter redo jump after jump until urine ran down her legs. We watch Golden knock the chair out from under Tonya, slap her, fling abuse by the bucket, and even hurl a knife into Tonya’s arm. Is it any wonder Tonya grew up tough, cynical, and a self-described “redneck?” Her off-ice talents included hunting, mud bogging, engine repair, chain smoking though she has asthma, denying responsibility for most wrongs, and showing contempt for peers who ridiculed her. Nor do you have to Sherlock Holmes to fathom why Harding, who was pulled out of school by her mother, married the first guy who paid attention to her, just to put a little distance between herself and her mother. Unfortunately, that guy was Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), whose affection barely made it through the wedding before he began using Harding as a punching bag. The marriage lasted less than three years (1990-1993).

Harding on ice brings to mind what happened early in Martina Navratilova’s tennis career; she was clearly more athletic than other skaters and did something never before done when, in 1991, she became the first woman ever to land a triple axel in a championship competition. But what if you’re not the “image” demanded by others? Although the film doesn’t mention it, Harding only finished second in an event won by reigning USFSA magic girl Kristi Yamaguchi. Harding was rock and roll, danger, and meat on the bones in a sport that wanted refined, demure, petite beauty queens. Try to catch a break on subjective “artistic” elements when you look like what you are: a redneck with too much makeup stuffed into a tacky costume you sewed yourself.

There is so much this film might have been, but what does it tell you when it was in “Best Comedy” categories for Critics' Choice awards? We have, friends, another sad case of a timid director and hack writers afraid to trust the audience. (Who, exactly, did they imagine that audience to be—mall-going teens?) Instead of following any of the rich dramatic possibilities, we instead get pasteboard characters propped up in a story told mockumentary style. Lost along the way: an analysis of what abuse does to a person, the unspeakable unfairness of the USFSA and other such bodies, the manner in which childhoods are sacrificed upon an altar of sports entertainment fantasy, and—lest we forget—the beginnings of 24/7 TV tabloid trash broadcasting. Let me also call out the ineptitude of Paul Walter Hauser as Eckhardt and my utter amazement that Sebastian Stan gets work. Were it not that Robbie is credible as Harding, Mckenna Grove heartbreaking as Tonya aged 8-12, and Janney amazing as Golden, not even a Zamboni driver would touch this frozen dreck. Why hate on Harding when you can dump on this film instead?

Rob Weir